The ongoing demand for cocaine in the U.S. and Europe is starting to ravage Ecuador, a nation of 18 million people, just as it has brought crime and death to Colombia, Central America and swathes of Mexico.

On Oct. 15, Ecuador conducted a model presidential election, in which the right-wing candidate, Daniel Noboa, edged moderate leftist Luisa Gonzalez. But either contender would have struggled to regain control over the skyrocketing levels of murder, kidnapping and extortion that have resulted from the recent arrival of international drug smuggling cartels. These groups have turned the steamy Pacific port city of Guayaquil into a major cocaine exporting hub and the most dangerous place in the country. The national murder rate has quadrupled in four years and continues to rise. 

When the cartels invade a country, they have a lethal impact that reaches far beyond drug smuggling. In the last few years, for example, the word “vacuna,” which means “vaccination,” has become widely used. In certain areas, you will see small, innocent-looking notices posted outside the small shops, or “tiendas.” 

“If the owners don’t pay up, first the drug gangs explode a bomb outside their front door, as a warning.”

The notices read: “Protected by the xxxx Neighborhood Security Patrol. Your Tranquility is Our Responsibility.” In fact, the signs are sinister. They indicate that the businesses, often mom-and-pop stores that are just scraping by, are making nightly payments to gang foot soldiers. Jorge Vargas is a taxi driver who knows Guayaquil intimately. “If the owners don’t pay up, first the drug gangs explode a bomb outside their front door, as a warning,” he tells me. “Then, if they still resist, the gangs will murder them.” 

Guayaqileños have developed an interactive mental map of the city, and they shudder as vacunas spread through the city’s neighborhoods. 

So far, little cocaine is actually produced in Ecuador. The international smuggling cartels, which apparently include two notorious groups in Mexico and another based in Albania, needed new export routes for product originating in Colombia, which borders Ecuador to the north. They expanded southwards with the same tactics they’ve used to invade other countries: extreme violence and corruption.

These narco trafficking cartels are astonishingly wealthy. The statistics are naturally inexact, but one estimate is that a kilo of cocaine, 2.2 pounds, has a wholesale value in the U.S. of as much as $69,000. The smuggling oligarchs have an even greater impact in a poor nation like Ecuador. The narcos bribe the police, up to senior levels, and corrupt the judicial system. They buy politicians and assassinate those who resist them. In August, a brave and outspoken presidential candidate named Fernando Villavicencio was murdered as he left a campaign rally. Authorities arrested seven suspects who were later killed inside prison, as they awaited trial, to prevent them from naming their paymasters. 

The cartels also use vicious violence to facilitate their smuggling through Guayaquil’s bustling port. “They have spies inside the port,” Vargas explained. “They learn which employees are responsible for checking the shipping containers before they are put on ships. They follow these key people to their homes — and then they use a combination of money and threats to persuade them to obey their instructions and not inspect, say, container number XYZ tomorrow.” 

The narcos have the resources to put an army of foot soldiers on their payrolls in a poor country with chronic high un- or under-employment. Local people also believe that some of the crimes are committed by freelancing lower level gang members who may not be sanctioned by the hierarchy. Yet another danger is “express kidnappings.” Gang members, sometimes using fake taxis, kidnap pedestrians at gunpoint, and force them to drive around to ATMs and withdraw money. 

Gang members, sometimes using fake taxis, kidnap pedestrians at gunpoint, and force them to drive around to ATMs and withdraw money.

There is universal agreement here that although Ecuador was poor, until three or four years ago you could go out at night without fear. Now, you see hundreds of uniformed armed guards in bulletproof vests stationed outside hotels and larger businesses, and people stay in at night. What’s more, Jorge Vargas explained, neighborhood disputes that until recently might have been resolved with a fistfight now risk lethal escalation, as one or both parties look to hire sicarios from among the growing number of cartel gunmen.

Despite the rising crime, the Ecuadorian people set an impressive example of political maturity in the Oct. 15 presidential election, one that might well shame Americans. Even though Daniel Noboa defeated Luisa Gonzalez by the narrow margin of 52-48, the nationwide electronic tabulating system produced a result in only two-and-a-half hours. The leading television network, Ecuavisa, provided thorough, professional, unbiased, nationwide coverage. The losers conceded graciously and promptly. There were no significant charges of fraud, no unrest and no denialism. (One interesting feature: For the past few years, the judges and observers at polling places have all been university students, because they are regarded as idealistic and less potentially corruptible.)

Everyone who looks at the hard facts recognizes that the decades-long War on Drugs has failed. By one estimate, global cocaine production nearly doubled from 2014 to 2020, rising to nearly 2000 tons. Some 6 million people in the U.S. are estimated to use cocaine annually. The solution seems obvious. Expand treatment for drug users in the rich world who want to recover from their addictions — and also decriminalize drug use, to reduce the power of the cartels. Even the conservative Economist magazine has argued for decriminalization. 

But the failed status quo prevails. Ecuadorians are now adding to its millions of innocent victims.

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